December 13, 2022
When cornered or surprised, any animal can turn the tables. With dangerous game, the difference is simple: Long before you squeeze the trigger, you know you are betting your life—and the lives of all present—that you, your rifle, the cartridge, and the bullet will perform properly and eliminate danger before it becomes imminent. Choose wisely and prepare well!
Dangerous Game Today
This story is not about rifles or bullets. I’m going to focus on my pick of cartridges that are best-suited to effectively take the world’s largest and most dangerous game. Before I can do that, let’s define these animals. Typically, we think first of the traditional “African Big Five.” The world has changed. We forget that within living memory, the Indian subcontinent (and Southeast Asia) held a greater variety of dangerous game!
Compared to Africa and Asia, the Western Hemisphere was cheated of extant Big Nasties. Our great bears must be counted, but I’m hard-pressed to include American bison or walrus. The jaguar, like Asia’s tiger, is unlikely to again be huntable. The mountain lion has the equipment, but in the context of a hunt, rarely poses danger.
Africa’s traditional Big Five consists of leopard, lion, buffalo, rhino, and elephant. Today, we often add hippo and crocodile and call it the “Dangerous Seven.” I’m going to modify this. The leopard is the most likely to get through to you. However, there is almost no danger in hunting leopards until you mess up the shot. Even then, the leopard is a deer-sized animal, not requiring a powerful cartridge. Much the same applies to crocodile. Near any African water, crocodiles are a deadly hazard, but there is little danger in crocodile hunting. A big croc is huge, and the necessity to anchor him with a brain or spine shot requires precision but little penetration.
Any rhino is big enough, but I can’t include them in my current “top five.” Though unpredictable as ever, less than a handful of black rhinos are taken annually. There is more opportunity for southern white rhino. However, the larger white rhino is a more placid beast. Charges are rare, and actual danger is minimal.
So I’m thinking animals that are not only large and potentially deadly, but also pose clear and present danger while one is hunting them. Lion, for sure; a quarter-ton cat is a force to be reckoned with. Africa’s Cape buffalo because of tenacity and attitude, oddly lacking in many wild bovines. Our largest bears, considering both the Alaskan brown bear and polar bear, as big as buffalo and just as tenacious. Hippopotamus, two tons of bad temper! Placid in their water sanctuary but prone to attack when encountered on land. Elephant is obvious, up to seven tons, often peaceful but, in extremis, like stopping a train. So that’s my list: lion, Cape buffalo, the biggest bears, hippo, and elephant. Now let’s turn to a short list of cartridges!
Cartridges You Can Count On
There are many! Opportunity to hunt dangerous game has always been limited, and it is shrinking. Even so, there has always been a huge fascination for large and powerful cartridges. There is a special something to a rifle and cartridge you can stake your life on, against any known creature, and win. As a result, we have many more big-bore cartridges than the actual need dictates, with much redundance in capability. It’s not my intent to split hairs; there are lots of equally good choices, but this is my list. I’ll try to explain my reasons, then you can make your own list!
Despite legend, it is not true that .375 H&H is the minimum legal caliber for African dangerous game. Some countries have no restrictions, and of those that do, the European 9.3mm (0.366 inch) is as common as 0.375. At least up to buffalo, theoretical arguments can be made for fast .33s and .35s with heavy bullets. Two things: The .375 is “street legal” for dangerous game throughout Africa; and for 109 years, the .375 H&H has proven itself adequate.
I promised I wouldn’t split hairs. The .375 Ruger is a “better” cartridge than the H&H, not because it offers a small velocity edge. Its modern case design is more efficient and often more accurate, and it fits into more compact standard-length actions. Take your pick. I stand by the H&H because of near-universal availability. Just now, with my son-in-law in Zambia, the scope blew up on his .375, and we darn near ran out of ammo re-zeroing it. As always, plenty of .375 H&H was in camp.
The beauty of the .375 is its versatility. It shoots flat enough for longer shots on other game yet has enough power and penetration for the big nasties. There are faster .375s, more versatile and delivering more energy. However, a great attribute of the .375 H&H is its “shootability.” Faster .375s shoot flatter and hit harder but at an escalating price in recoil. This is also an argument for the .375 versus the big bores: Almost anyone can learn to shoot a .375 H&H well. The big bores have their place…but not everyone can handle them!
As the world’s foremost utility infielder, there are few things the .375 H&H is ideal for. It is overpowered for deer, not flat enough for mountain game. For this discussion, it is perfect for lions and the biggest bears, and it’s adequate for any buffalo that walks. Considering the thick cover common to today’s hunting, I admit to reservations about the .375 for elephant. However, no different than in 1912, a well-placed solid from a .375 H&H is far better than a poorly placed round from a field howitzer.
The several .416s (and similar), usually in scoped bolt actions, are versatile enough for lions and the largest bears. Typically, they provide more dramatic effect on buffalo than a .375. With similar sectional density, more velocity, and less frontal area, the .416s actually offer better penetration on the largest game than most big bores.
They do not do this with less recoil. The standard for the old Nitro Express cartridges from .450 to .475 is a 500-grain bullet at about 2,150 fps, yielding about 5,000 ft-lbs of energy. The .404 Jeffery, .416 Ruger, .416 Remington, and .416 Rigby deliver 400-grain bullets at 2,350 to 2,400 fps, also about 5,000 ft-lbs. Physics are physics, so recoil is similar, with gun weight being the primary variable. As with the .375s, add velocity and recoil increases sharply!
One must not choose a .416 thinking it’s easier to shoot. But with good shot placement, the .416s are awesome! In this class, my favorites are the .404 Jeffery and .416 Rigby, based on history.
To pick just one, I go with the .416 Remington Magnum. The .416 Ruger is superb but uncommon. The .416 Rem. Mag. has been in production for 30 years and is chambered to most .375 H&H-length actions. It is probably more common than the .416 Rigby because the big Rigby case requires an extra-large action. For sure, .416 Rem. Mag. ammo is less costly, more compact, and more available. Ballistics are exactly the same: 400-grain bullet at 2,400 fps for about 5,000 ft-lbs.
The .416 Rem. Mag., as a newer (1989) cartridge, is loaded to much higher pressure than the old .416 Rigby. There is a rumor out there of sticky extraction. In 100-degree heat in Cameroon, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, I haven’t seen it. I’ve tried to run this to ground for 20 years but have encountered no first-hand reports. Certainly, with generous handloads or cartridges left in the sun, it is possible, but that’s not unique to the .416 Rem. Mag. So I don’t worry about it. If you like the idea of a .416 (and you should), the .416 Rem. Mag. makes the most sense.
In British cartridge lexicon, “.450/.400” means: .450 case necked down to about .40 caliber. There were two non-interchangeable .450/.400 Nitro Express versions: .450/.400-3¼ inch and .450/.400-3" (aka .400 Jeffery). Both were popular a century ago. Today, in new rifles, the three-inch version is dominant. It is primarily a rimmed double-rifle cartridge but has been a popular chambering in the Ruger No. 1 single shot; the rim and base pretty much max out the versatile No. 1 action.
The .450/.400-3" is a step down in velocity and energy: 400-grain bullet at a bit over 2,000 fps, for almost 4,000 ft-lbs. Its great beauty is performance without pain! Recoil is much less than any of the big bores; it’s similar to .375 H&H. However, the 400-grain bullet deals a heavy blow, and penetration is legendary.
With much less velocity, it is not as versatile as the .375s or .416s, but it is fantastic for buffalo and hippo. My wife, Donna, and I have both used it for elephant with no issues; I consider it a practical minimum for today’s elephant hunting, better than a .375. Combining effect with modest recoil, it’s one of the very best choices for hunting African buffalo. Unless one intends to do a lot of elephant hunting, I think it’s the most sensible choice in a new double rifle. Because it’s easier to shoot than a big bore, you’ll shoot a .450/.400 double more and become more proficient.
The .458 Winchester Magnum arrived in 1956, at a time when Kynoch was discontinuing the big Nitro Express cartridges. It quickly became the world-standard big bore and probably accounted for more elephant than any other cartridge. Its problem was that with propellants of the day in its short (2.5-inch) case, it was difficult to get it to the promised speed of 2,150 fps with a 500-grain bullet. Reports drifted in of erratic ignition and compressed powder charges pushing bullets out.
Even earlier, there were .458-caliber wildcats based on the full-length (2.85-inch) H&H case, including .450 Ackley and .450 Watts. Why Winchester chose to shorten the case remains a mystery.
My old friend, eccentric writer Jack Lott, experienced problems with the .458, including getting tossed by a buffalo! So his cartridge, the .458 Lott, developed in the early ’80s, is ballistically identical to the Ackley and Watts. Lott simply extended the .458 Win. Mag. case with little taper, so then-ubiquitous .458 Win. Mag. ammo could be safely chambered and fired and would generally feed. Case capacity easily allows 2,400 fps with a 500-grain bullet, but current factory loads are more conservative at about 2,300 fps, yielding 5,800 ft-lbs. Power and penetration are amazing; the Lott is a thumper on both ends! I took an early .458 Lott to Zambia in 1984, barrel work done by Jack Lott himself.
It was, and is, an awesome cartridge. However, modern propellants and lighter bullets (for buffalo, not for elephant) have cured most of the .458 Win. Mag.’s shortfalls. Unless hunting brontosaurus (or small armored cars), few of us need the power and recoil of the .458 Lott, much less the several faster, larger-cased cartridges. In a big bolt-action rifle, primarily with elephant in mind, the .458 Lott is an easy choice. It still offers the option of using .458 Win. Mag. ammo in a pinch and for lighter-recoil practice.
Based on an existing blackpowder case, the .500 Nitro Express preceded all the other big-bore Nitro Express cartridges. It is a double-rifle cartridge, although early British and some custom single shots have been so chambered. There were both 3-inch and 3¼-inch versions, but only the .500-3" NE is offered today. Both it and the .470, which is a necked-down .500 (3.25-inch case), are too wide to be housed in the Ruger No. 1 without hogging out the action.
When contemplating a double rifle, everybody wants a .470, the most common chambering in new doubles with the most available ammo. However, the .500-3" is second in current popularity. If you are serious about a big double for the largest game, with elephant on the menu, then I think the .500 NE is the horse to ride because availability is almost as good as .470, and it gives you a little bit more. Velocity is the same, 2,150 fps, but its 570-grain bullet is 12 percent heavier, with about 5,860 ft-lbs of energy, 700 ft-lbs more than the .470, with more frontal area.
Enough gun is just that! I used a .450-3¼" for years, but my first double, back in the ’70s, was a .470, and I’ve recently returned to the .470. Both are plenty adequate, so the .500’s “edge” isn’t essential. However, with its straight case, the .500 delivers that bonus with almost no appreciable increase in recoil. Rifles in .500 are usually a bit heavier (not a bad thing for recoil). But with the same rim and base diameter, .500 and .470 actions are alike in width and weight. If you handload (and, at the price of ammo, you should!), the .500’s shorter case offers better load density with modern propellants. There’s no need to mess with over-powder wads or fillers, essential with some powders in the .470’s longer case.
So the one “pure” double-rifle cartridge on my short list is the .500-3" Nitro Express. It’s fully capable of stopping the world’s largest and most dangerous game—but you must still place the bullet!
Notes on Cartridges and Game
Lion: At maybe 400 pounds, the lion is smaller than the rest, but one must be mindful of what a lion will do to you if you mess up. With low light likely, the lion will usually be hunted with a scoped rifle; a .375 is perfect, a .416 great. Now, if a follow-up is needed, nothing is too big.
Cape Buffalo: I am convinced one will take more and bigger buffaloes with a scoped rifle than with iron sights. The .375 is plenty. Bigger is not “better” but may result in more rapid gratification, provided shot placement is equally good. All this applies equally to water buffalo and other large bovines, but “problems” are less frequent.
The Biggest Bears: All bears are unpredictable and can be dangerous. A big black bear can be as big as the average interior grizzly. I single out big coastal brown bears and polar bears because they can weigh more than 1,200 pounds, so it’s a matter of magnitude. Many have been taken with the .30-06 (and smaller), and .338 is adequate. However, the biggest bears are in “.375 territory,” and many hunters today choose .416s. Regardless of the cartridge, optical sights should be used, and shots out to 200 yards may be needed.
Hippo: In their water sanctuary, taking a hippo is a matter of a precise brain shot. The skull is fragile; tough expanding bullets are fine. On land, a hippo is a massive bullet sponge. If you get between a hippo and its water, expect an immediate charge. A .375 is minimal. For body shots, the hippo is deep into big-bore country, so you better have solids in the magazine or the second barrel.
Elephant: Unlike most game, elephants are best hunted with iron sights, and 25 yards is a long shot, so the “tunnel vision” of a riflescope is dangerous. Only non-expanding solid bullets should be used. All cartridges mentioned are proven, but on the world’s largest game, bigger is probably better. Except that it’s a matter of bullet penetration and precise shot placement!